A Cappella Love Fest at the Harmony Sweepstakes Festival

May 13, 2014

You’ve never heard of the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival? Even though its now in its 30th year, and takes place on May 17 at 8 p.m. in the Marin Veteran’s Auditorium, neither had I, until an email from the MC of the New York regional finals, fellow whistler Steve Herbst, tipped me off. But once you realize the extent of the Harmony Sweepstakes’ global embrace of all forms of a cappella artistry, and sense how much sheer joy and exuberance is shared between participants and attendees, you too may wonder how this annual event could have possibly fallen off your radar.

Mayflower Community ChorusTheatrical producer John Neal, 60, owner and executive producer of the Harmony Sweepstakes, explains that the event began small, in Marin County. Originally sponsored by San Rafael’s British-themed Mayflower Pub, it grew out of the bar’s weekly sing-along beer fest. Out of that sprang the Mayflower Community Chorus, which is still going strong.

Eventually, one of the members of the chorus, Lisa Murphy, dreamed up a competition for the various cappella groups that had sprung up within the chorus. After the English-born Neal attended the fourth or fifth annual event with up to 600 other people, he proposed to Murphy that they use his expertise as a producer of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the annual Mill Valley Film Festival, a host of Bay Area theatrical productions, and key acts in the Bay Area New Vaudeville movement to take the Harmony Sweepstakes national.

Now the sole promoter of the event, as well as the founder of Primarily A Cappella Records, Neal credits the growth of the Harmony Sweepstakes to its enthusiastic audience.

“Our biggest success has always been that people come to the show, love it, and come back next year with their friends,” he told SFCV. “It’s been held in the Frank Lloyd Wright building since 2003, where audience members, a lot of whom are singers from throughout the U.S. and abroad, fill its 2000 seats every year.”

The national competition is the culmination of regional finals that tale place every spring in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the Pacific Northwest, San Francisco, and the Mid-Atlantic states. (Singers from the Southeast and Southwest need to get on board.) Venues, for the most part, are performing arts centers. Thanks to brisk ticket sales — there is no foundation or government support — winners receive airfare and accommodations to the national finals in Marin.

International Representation

Quintessential Five“We are pretty well known overseas,” Neal reports. “There is an a cappella world out there; in it, the Harmony Sweepstakes is a big deal. The word ‘community’ might be a little too lovey-dovey, but there are other a cappella festivals overseas that are linked by the internet as well as common attendance. A lot of the overseas groups see the Harmony Sweepstakes as a good way to break into the American scene.”

A case in point is the New York regional finalists, the youthful Quintessential Five. Composed of two men and three women ages 13-17, the Quintessential Five hail from Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia. (For the geographically handicapped, of which I am one, the Republic of Georgia lies in the southern part of the hopefully still former Soviet Union, between Turkey and Russia.)

Quintessential Five, which has posted its first music video on its Facebook page, performs a unique synthesis of ancient Georgian classical and folk harmonies with American jazz. Their accented English, youthful optimism, and one-of-a-kind, Georgian-tinged fusion are nigh impossible to resist.

The ensemble’s artistic director and producer, Buka Kartozia, initially sang in the Georgian Jazz Sextet from the 1990s through 2002. For 13 years, he also lived in New York City. In 2002, after he saw a flyer for New York’s Harmony Sweepstakes regional, he entered with another quartet he had joined, Autri, and won the competition.

Kartozia eventually returned to the Republic of Georgia, where he founded the Quintessential Five in the fall of 2012. He currently arranges the ensemble’s music with group member Papuna Sharikadze, 16.

“A lot of people think a cappella is doo-wop and barbershop, but we’ve had groups do far more forms than I can mention. Almost every culture has a history of indigenous, a cappella singing.” — John Neal, executive producer, Harmony Sweepstakes

“In spite of the fact that Georgian polyphony is one of the oldest polyphonies in the world, we don’t today have many groups singing in harmony except for the pure folk groups,” he explained via Skype. “I don’t know why. When I was in the Georgian Jazz Sextet, there were several groups doing a similar thing. Now, the Quintessential Five is the first group to revive the tradition. I think the Georgian audience missed this kind of music a lot, because, ever since appearing on TV, we’ve been getting a lot of publicity. We even have the support of the Ministry of Georgia and the city of Tbilisi.”

The Quintessential Five may be the only group from abroad in this year’s finals, but other areas of the world will certainly have their due. Women of the World, the Boston regional finalist group, which will compete in Marin, is composed of five singers who “come from different corners of the world.” Wearing representative garb from their countries of origin, they’ve even performed with African diva Angélique Kidjo.

“One of the greatest pleasures for me has been able to discover the wide range of vocal harmony that people do,” says Neal. “A lot of people think a cappella is doo wop and barbershop, but we’ve had groups do vocal percussion mimicking instruments, world music, and far more forms than I can mention. Almost every culture has a history of indigenous a cappella singing, from slaves in the cotton fields to Russian Orthodox liturgy. In fact, the term a cappella literally means “in the chapel,” and has its roots with monks who sang religious music unaccompanied, at a time when instrumental accompaniment was forbidden in chapels.”

Wil Mathews, 39 one of the two original members of this year’s San Francisco Harmony Sweepstakes regional winners, Prime Time, was still lounging in bed when I phoned him well past 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. That’s what being a software engineer will do to you.

“We always marvel at how cool it was that our voices blended so wonderfully. It just went there, and we love it.” — Courtney Gasque, Honey Whiskey Trio

Nor is baritone Mathews the only member of the six-person mixed ensemble who spends most of their time doing something other than singing. Prime Time’s first soprano owns a wine bar and shop, the second soprano is a business analyst, the alto is an advertising manager, the tenor teaches at Milpitas High, and the bass is a project manager at Google. I didn’t dare ask if the bass lives in San Francisco, and how much he pays for rent.

The ensemble currently sings pop in a Katie Perry vein, straight ahead jazz, contemporary a cappella, and “a few choral-sounding ballads.”

“We are super-thrilled to be representing the Bay Area,” says Mathews. “We were a bit shocked when we were picked, because the Bay Area competition is really fierce. The finals will be even tougher, I’m sure. But we know what we need to do, and we’re working diligently.”

New York Glee and Valley Girl Folk

Honey Whiskey TrioOften, the biggest surprise of the competition belongs to the group members themselves. Harmony Sweepstakes’ current National Champions, the folk-based Honey Whiskey Trio, first formed in January 2013, just five months before they won the Los Angeles regional and, shortly thereafter, the nationals.

The trio’s founder, Pasadena-based Courtney Gasque, 32, otherwise teaches preschool through 8th grade in the San Fernando Valley. “Anytime someone says they like our music, we’re just kind of surprised and shocked,” she admits. “We just have a lot of fun doing it, and we’re amazed that people like it.”

Gasque, who also sings in a classical women’s chorus, Vox Semina, shares a vocal jazz background with the trio’s other members, Christina Wilson, and Ann Louise Jeffries Thaiss. All three studied at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach.

Founding the Honey Whiskey Trio had not even occurred to Gasque when she decided to try her hand at arranging. Through her voice teacher, Moira Smiley, who founded the 2007 Harmony Sweeps Competition winning ensemble, VOCO, she met Wilson. When Gasque suggested they try some arrangements of “The House of the Rising Sun” and other songs, and the women needed a third, Christina recommended Ann.

“The sound we produced, we suddenly realized, was right for folk music,” says Gasque. “We always marvel at how cool it was that our voices blended so wonderfully. It just went there, and we love it.”

After hosting the Harmony Sweepstakes on May 17, the Honey Whiskey Trio headlines the second annual SheSings Festival in Eugene, Oregon, opens for a 100-member men’s barbershop chorus, and travels to Minnesota to headline a high school a cappella festival. Next January, they headline a big a cappella festival in Los Angeles, and eventually land in Oakland for the folk-based Far West Conference.

“We’re exploring both the folk and a cappella worlds, which is really fun,” says Gasque. “We owe so much of our success to the Harmony Sweepstakes. We’re incredibly grateful, because I don’t think we’d be where we are without their start. The audience is fantastic. It’s so supportive. Everyone in the audience loves a cappella and music in general, and you feel they’re ready to enjoy anything you give them.”

There’s only one thing more to say about the Harmony Sweepstakes. If you want to revel in the fun, get tickets fast, while there are still seats to be had. There are singers aplenty eager to welcome you with open arms and hearts filled with song.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.